The sun was bright and I had a hard time making it to the video store. The sunlight was not as dazzling inside, and it felt cooler to my eyes. I moved up and down the aisles. Comedy. Children's. Headed the wrong way, I thought, so I turned around and wandered back the other way.
Ah, here it is. Romance.
I sat down on the floor next to my video. There were some movies at the multiplex that I wanted to see, but it was too crowded to go on a Friday, and on Saturday my family would be coming to see me. I always tried to be there when my family came to visit, but it was hard. I considered myself separated from my wife, although she'd been dragging her feet on the divorce. She always brought the kids to see me, which was nice of her. It showed respect for what we once had, at least.
I had to wait a long time, and I was beginning to think that I should choose another video. Usually I went in, saw what everybody else was picking, and just watched that with them. But today I really wanted to see Say Anything. A great movie, in my humble opinion, and probably as good an ending as any movie has ever had, but my friends would tell you that I only rented it when I was feeling sorry for myself. That's true, I guess. I was feeling sorry for myself a lot these days.
A girl came in the store, a Gothic style girl, all in black, crystals and pendants and things dangling, and went straight for my video. I liked her aura as well as her taste in cinema. I followed her to the check out, and then home, keeping a respectful distance. I'm not a stalker. I just like to watch videos sometimes.
She lived in an apartment down by the university. Nice complex, called Three Streams, with the buildings surrounding a little park with an artificial pond. She parked, got her mail, then crossed the park toward her place. I had to stop at the fountain. The water shot up beautifully and came down noisily in the basin. The water then spilled from the basin in three spouts onto the ground, making its way downhill in discrete little streams that finally met right before they emptied into the pond. I liked it.
I hurried to catch up with her, but she'd already shut her door. I had some problems getting through it, so I marked the place in my mind and went around the building to find a window to get in through. That was soon done. She kept her place dark, and I lurked around, trying to find a comfortable place to watch the video. She had a beautiful collection of crystals on a curio in the corner. Some were on stands and others were attached to little leather strings. Necklaces, I supposed. They were all glowing very faintly. I put my hand out to one of the smaller ones. It was sticky and it glowed more brightly as I touched it.
I pulled my hand back when I heard the water for the shower go off. I hesitated a moment, concentrating, because it felt like she was crying still. As time has gone on, I've gotten very good at reading emotion, but I just don't communicate with people anymore. Part of it was the job I used to have, working the tech support help desk all those years, saying the same damned things over and over. Have you rebooted the computer? Have you talked to Microsoft yet? Go ahead and click on start, then settings, then control panel . . . Over and over, the same cant, the work channeled a mental rut right into my brain until I even ended phone calls to my mother with thanks for calling and have a great day. It definitely fucked up my ability to have a normal conversation. Of course, I had other problems. They hadn't put me in Greenville because I worked tech support too long.
Anyway, I'd noticed that she was crying when I went past the bathroom earlier. When I watch videos, I like to wander around unobtrusively and get the layout of the house in my mind, get to know where everyone is so that there won't be any unpleasant surprises for me. So what if she was crying? The shower is probably the best place in the world to go for that type of activity. Goth Girl knew that, what with the crying and the low, body-racking sobs she was making in there; I left her to it. Even if I wanted to reveal my presence to her, my keen understanding of the female psyche allowed me to conjecture that finding a complete stranger in her house would bring her little comfort.
She would be out now, toweling off. I wondered what her towels were like and how they felt taking the moisture off her damp skin. I imagined the towels as thick white cotton, with thousands of tiny cotton loops soaking up the drops, then the water permeating to the parts of the towel that weren't lucky enough to touch her. I thought about texture a lot of late. Texture and temperature and the pattern of sensation in the palm of a hand. My fixations have become simpler and infinitely deeper during my Travels, like a cold and noisy stream that jostles over cracked granite boulders down into a deep and ancient mountain lake with a surface like a mirror. It goes from noise and motion to silence and still depths, just as I have.
It's my nature now to be quiet. I admire her taste when she comes out in just a Black Flag t-shirt. She draws the curtains, closes the door to the room where I made my entrance through the window, and goes to the stereo. She bends over as she fumbles with the controls in the dim light, and I can see that the shirt is truly all she's wearing. It's always a pleasant jolt for me to actually see her sacred folds of skin, no matter who she is or from what angle. From behind and in the dark was particularly pleasant.
I looked away until she stood up again. I watched women at a lot more when I began my Travels. Showers, of course. Bathrooms and private moments between couples as well, when the mood took me. But things were more complicated for me in the beginning, when I felt like I was Dead. I thought a lot about Hell back then, if you want to know the truth. Dr. Shores at Greenville assures me that I'm not Dead almost every day. I know that he's right, and at least he's a real medical doctor, unlike some of the people that are still trying communicate with me. I saw the degrees in their various offices and most just have PhD's, although they insist on being called Doctor this and Doctor that. At first, I was very much interested in getting better, so I overlooked any educational shortcomings of the people trying to help me. I worked hard with them for a long time, but after a while it was just too frustrating for all of us.
My point was . . . what? Ah! That I thought about Hell a great deal. I can't say that I developed any deeper understanding or wisdom. Simple logic. Either Hell exists or it doesn't. And if it does exist, it is not a place you want to patronize with your eternal business. I decided that looking at naked strangers, unless it was just to admire beauty, might not go over well with the Big Cheese when I finished my Travels and Died. It was difficult, because my mind had started to get quieter and I really wanted to study lust.
Lust. The charge it gives in the limbs especially--a roll of sensation from the elbows to the hands and also along the thighs between the knees and the groin. A perfectly marvelous and natural reaction, at least in me. Even in my early Travels, I had separated lust from lewdness and replaced greed with earnest enthusiasm. Lust can be very cruel if you harbor anger or selfishness, and I'd overcome that ignorance. I had no vulgar intentions when I watched these people. I did not covet anything but to understand the delicious eagerness for sensation that lust gives a person.
After all, I'm not Dead. My heart's long countdown to rest is not complete, and I have a duty to enjoy my life, such as it was. I might not be able to talk to people, but between thinking and my secret Travels I discovered that I had very few reasons to feel sorry for myself.
The music comes on and I turn my attention away from myself. The Rollins Band. That explains the Black Flag shirt, maybe. Liar. Not the first track on that disc, so she must have forwarded it that song. I guess someone is feeling bitter.
I think of the top five bitter songs I've heard. Last week I watched High Fidelity in another woman's house, so I've been making a lot of top five lists in my head. Let's see . . . Liar would definitely be on that list, probably Hank's most accessible song. Rape Me by the late Mr. Cobain and company. Fuck and Run by Liz Phair, of course. Oh! I thought of another good one. Cancer of Everything by Lisa Germano. Bitter and obscure, the most devastating track on her album Geek the Girl. That little ditty would perch defiantly at the top of the list. Need a fifth song . . . something else from left field, but really bitter? Shit, I give up. Let's say that Mmm-Bop song from those adorable Hansen brothers. If I could remember the lyrics, besides the Mmm- Bop part, I'm sure I could analyze them and convince people the song was about being molested as a child or heroin addiction.
What's going on here? From behind the couch it appears that she's having a little fun. That's what happens when I let my focus slip away. I move a little, holding my breath, and yessiree . . . she is going to town. Her Black Flag shirt is long enough to be a nightie, but she's pulled it up. Body laid back on the couch, head propped against the pillow, one foot on the floor and the other pulled up on the couch, and two hands perched typist-style over her mound. Quick movements are being made on the unseen area, and her tendons are obvious under her pale skin. Her belly is rounded but not overly so, just like her face, which now has fresh tears on it. If I had not advanced beyond being vulgar, I must say that she would have turned my head on the street.
A girl who cries as she masturbates to bitter Henry Rollins songs in the dark. Wow. I don't need to conduct a poll to determine that there must be a lot more to her story. If I was better at talking to people, I'd try to find out what's going on behind that pretty face.
She came quietly, arching her back and a gentle spasm of her hips to finish. Once it was over, she was a flurry of activity. She picked up the room, washed some dishes in the sink and put them in a rack to dry. She looked at the clock and put some shorts on. She tidied up some more. She went to the door with the speed of someone who was expecting a knock.
In came a short girl in a rent-a-cop uniform: black fatigue pants and boots with a white collared shirt that had a silkscreen of a badge on it. Hugs were exchanged. They made small talk and popcorn, and the new girl took the flashlight, pepper spray, and radio off her belt and put them on the coffee table. She also took off her rent a cop uniform shirt. Underneath it she had a black t-shirt that said DYKE in white block letters. Like the crew cut wasn't hint enough.
They watched the movie together, but it was hard for me to follow because they kept talking through it. Can't grumble about that really. It's not like I paid to watch it, but I feel that if you are going to go through the bother of renting a movie and popping it in your VCR, you should shut up and watch the movie. Maybe that's just me.
In the end though, I became addicted to their dynamic. Friends, obviously. Each with pain in their aura. I don't think my little Goth was a lesbian. I wanted her to be heterosexual, that's true, but I pride myself that my observations are not tainted by my desires. There was a caring back and forth about a man and his hurtful behavior, which confirmed my suspicions about her orientation, and perhaps accounted for the choice of song like Liar.
There were undertones, though, that begged consideration. Crew Cut had some hopes of her own, I thought. And sometimes as I watched my Goth I saw signs that those hopes might not be entirely in vain. There was emotion in her that might have answered her friend's faint aspirations, but she didn't have the confidence to explore those feelings. I saw it most clearly illustrated when Crew Cut left her, and they had a hug goodbye that veered away from platonic. Face to face, eyes raised to each other, touching from breasts to hips. Intimacy between people can often be measured by how far away one stands when you begin to lean into an embrace. They had to lean very little, and they were a kiss away from pulling back the curtains on some very important feelings. But of course they did not kiss, and I almost began to feel sorry for it. I had, in this very short time, begun to feel some vulgar possessiveness for my Goth, but I could also see that Crew Cut had sharp and honest feelings for her. Noble feelings and good intentions. It's good to see that others have risen above the grind of purely sexual motives, just as I have done during my Travels.
After rewinding the tape and starting the movie again, my Goth stripped naked and got under a blanket on the couch to watch the movie. Her boyfriend called her, and from her half of the conversation I got fairly good impression of the man. From that moment on I thought of him as Shithead. After a while he either hung up or passed out. She drifted off to the sounds of the Chili Peppers singing Taste the Pain. Taste the Pain! Let's take Hansen out of my top five bitter songs and replace it with that one.
I stayed to finish the movie and the room went dark afterward. I see very well in the dark, and I knelt beside her and watched her sleep for a while. Her face was not peaceful, and her chest rose and fell as she dreamed. The blanket had been pushed down by the movement, and her nipples were exposed but uncontracted and soft. She had the pendant on still, and the crystal hung in the valley between her breasts. I touched the crystal again, careful not to touch her soft skin, watching it glow brighter in the dim light until the space between us was lit with a sphere of blue light. It was hard to take my finger away from the crystal, because she was beautiful and strong in that light. She smiled in her sleep and some worry lines eased. Enough for tonight.
It was very late when I came back to Greenville. I was still tired when my family arrived the next day, but I roused myself so that I could look at my kids. They seemed to be doing very well, and there was an air of general happiness in them despite their faces. I suspect my ex-wife rewards them with trips to the beach or the amusement park after these visits. It is depressing to be such a grim chore.
I was beside the bed and watching my oldest child hold my hand when it happened. I smiled down at him, but I felt sick and insubstantial suddenly. The walls of the room seemed smoky. I was dangerously weak to be Traveling, and reluctantly I went to the bed and got back into my body.
Darkness again. It's not absolute horror, once you get used to it. Before I learned to Travel, it got very lonely in my mind. Now fear of weakness and the implication that I wouldn't be able to Travel anymore choked me.
It took discipline to get my thoughts in order. I was weak because of handling the crystals and Traveling for so long, and it would pass. I still had the ability to sense pressure on my left side, and I could feel the loving squeezes of my children.
When I first woke up in the darkness, panic had been the first emotion as well. I had no concept of time before I subjugated my mind, so I can't say with certainty how long that first panic lasted. Thoughts are like speech, but without emotion or volume. Eventually they grow quiet, like any other conversation. In these quiet pauses that developed, I took control. I remembered things. I created and solved math problems. Anything to pass the time while I waited in the dark.
Almost from the beginning I knew I must have gone back into a coma, and for a while I still had hope. I was in the first coma for seventy-two hours, Dr. Shores told me, but I came out of it okay. I don't remember having any thoughts during that first coma or being conscious of anything, just of coming out of it. But maybe that's what it would be like when I came out of this darkness.
That would be a shame, I thought, because my mind was wonderfully clear. I never seemed to sleep, my consciousness continued on and on in an eternal moment. I was soon doing very complex sums, writing chapters of a book and memorizing them, rebuilding memories until they were distinct enough to almost relive. It wasn't too boring, just lonely.
I wondered if this is what the Tibetan monks do in their meditations. I remembered being told that they strove to empty the mind of all thought in order to achieve enlightenment. It takes a lifetime of work, or more, since they get reincarnated. But I had a leg up on those orange robed mystics, because I didn't have jack shit to distract me.
I worked on images, trying to picture what I must look like. If time was passing like I thought it was, I doubted that I was in the ICU any longer. They would have moved me to a hospice or something. A long term care facility. Would I have my own room? What kind of machines would I have by my bed, if any? Carpet or tile? A window? A TV?
And so I pictured it thus: a private room, a single bed. A nice upholstered chair underneath a TV mounted on a wall bracket. I had catastrophic health insurance, so everything should be quite nice. A window with Venetian blinds, the big fat ones that you see in hospitals instead of the thin ones you have at home. I'd have an IV drip and a respirator. A catheter certainly, discretely placed. A tough and thin but attractive carpet on the floor. They'd know I wasn't brain dead, so maybe they left the TV on for me in case I could hear it. What would my boy put on for me? Either the news or the Simpsons.
I pictured the room in grayscale, because the color of things seemed very important to me and nothing I imagined felt right. I could see the TV, and I projected my memory of a few episodes up at the screen. The Simpsons, at least, were in color because I knew exactly what they looked like. So I laid down in the bed, tubes taped down my throat and breathing for me, remembering an episode of the Simpsons on the TV. I was trying to remember it exactly, and I was getting very good at it. I even remembered commercials.
I watched the episode, and I got up out of bed to turn the volume up. I got up out of bed to turn the volume up? I looked around my imaginary room. Some of the things had been moved, and now everything was in color. I could see myself in bed, tubes placed very much how I envisaged them. I walked around the room, studying things, noticing the wealth of detail that had arrived. I went out the open door and saw a long hallway with a nurse's station perhaps forty feet away. I walked over there, but the nurse didn't look up and I found I couldn't talk. I went to the restroom to look at myself in the mirror. I was very indistinct, as if the mirror had been fogged wherever my reflection should have been. I began to feel like what I was doing was very dangerous, and I went back to my room quickly and laid down in the bed, back into the comforting darkness of my body.
That's how I began to Travel. Astral projection. In college I read an autobiography of a fighter pilot who mentioned doing it when he was a POW. He'd been locked in a dark hole for years, and astral projection was the only thing that kept him sane. I remember thinking at the time that maybe there was something to it. I didn't believe in that sort of crap, but this guy wasn't exactly some hippie or New Age guru. He'd bailed out of an A-1 Skyraider that had been shot up during a combat mission, landed in good shape, and escaped being caught right away. As he hid in the jungle an enemy patrol passed within feet of him. He was certain he was about to be captured, so he smashed his rescue beacon. That way the enemy couldn't use it to lure the search and rescue helicopters into an ambush. The patrol didn't find him, so he was left in the jungle feeling like an idiot with a smashed radio and no way to signal the rescuers. Eventually the enemy caught him a few weeks later, still running around in the jungle, and he had many ordeals and a long imprisonment before finally escaping again. I was very impressed with his story. I was surprised that I'd stumbled into astral projection instead of remembering his account and trying to do it on purpose.